In this current lesson study sequence, we are urged to use “Scripture only” as the basis for our faith. Most of us in this forum probably take the Bible as we read it today for granted. We may argue over which version is best, but we largely accept Scripture as the basis of our faith. However, many of us have only a passing knowledge of how we come to have Scripture in its present form. If we are to have faith in the Bible as we read it today, it goes without saying that we also have to trust the transmission and translation process that has delivered the Bible to us in the 21st century.
In an ideal world, we would have the original autographs (manuscripts written by the original authors) but we have to rely on copies, and indeed generations of copies many times removed from the original author. Further, since most of us are unskilled in Hebrew, Aramaic, and koine Greek, we have to rely on others who have done the translation for us.
This overview commences with a history of Old Testament manuscripts, up until the development of the Masoretic Text. It is followed with a brief review of the formation of the New Testament canon and the formation of the first full Bible in the people’s language. The sources used by the translators of the King James Version are described together with a summary of the working mandate for the translation. Finally, in the light of the availability of manuscripts discovered in the last 400 years the techniques for manuscript evaluation and translation selection are summarized.
I have no agenda to promote a particular translation as being better than another. My main concern is that we have confidence that the message of the Gospel has been transmitted to us today.
The Old Testament
There is a general consensus that the main work of collecting the writings that became the Hebrew Bible was completed at the time of Ezra (~450BC). Some scholars argue that the canon was fixed around 100 BC, but others argue that it may have been as late as 200AD. There is a list by Sirach (one of the Apocryphal authors ~180BC) that lists most of the Old Testament books but excludes Ruth, Songs of Solomon, Esther and Daniel. The Hebrew writings at this time would have been on scrolls and were all hand-written manuscripts. They would have been highly valued and the few copies available outside the temple area would have been either stored in synagogues or in communities dedicated to their preservation (e.g. The Essenes). These communities would be loosely equivalent to academic communities today.
The Hebrew Bible comprises 24 books and is more or less equivalent to the Christian Old Testament’s 39 books.
In the second and third centuries BC, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Koine Greek, the dialect of Greek spoken and written by the common people through much of the Mediterranean area from the time of Alexander the Great until at least Constantine. Most of this work was done in Alexandria, Egypt. The Torah was translated first, reputedly by 72 scholars, and the rest of the sacred writings were translated over the following two centuries.
The Old Testament quotations in the Christian New Testament appear to come largely from the Septuagint and not from the Hebrew.
During the 7th to 10th centuries AD, a group of Jewish scholars based on the Ben Asher family, Masoretes, did a lot of work on standardizing the Hebrew language. As part of their work, they collected and consolidated the existing Hebrew scriptures into a consistent set of documents we now call the Masoretic Text. Their vowel notion system is still used today. There are Masoretic Text manuscripts dating from around the 9th century AD.
The Septuagint and the Masoretic text form the basis of most of the Old Testament English translations.
Dead Sea Scrolls
These manuscripts were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in caves Northwest of the Dead Sea. Among them are a number of biblical manuscripts (about 40%) that have been dated as being written during the third century BC. Among these findings are some of the oldest fragments of Old Testament Scripture in existence. Significantly, because they are the earliest Old Testament manuscripts we have, they give us a greater understanding of the transmission to both the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text.
It should be noted that while there are differences between the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint and that Masoretic text, most of them are relatively minor and probably typical of any document that has been recopied many times over a period of centuries.
The New Testament
It is thought that there were collections of the epistles and the gospels circulating among the churches by the end of the first century. Irenaeus (a Greek bishop) refers directly to the four Gospels around 180AD. The earliest reference to a canonical collection for the Christian Church is in 382AD at the Council of Rome. This included both the Old and New Testament.
The Full Bible in the Christian Era
Since Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire, it was not long before there were translations into that language to make Scripture available to the common people. In 382, Jerome, after the Council of Rome, at the direction of (Pope) Damasus I, started the process of translation the bible into Latin. He revised the translation of the Gospels and translated the Old Testament Hebrew Bible himself. It is believed that others translated the rest of the New Testament. The Vulgate replaced the Vetus Latina (Old Latin Gospels) and although widely adopted by the 13th Century AD it was affirmed as the official Latin Bible in 1545-1563 by the Council of Trent. It was, however, the defacto Church Bible through the Middle Ages.
The most notable version of the Vulgate Bible is the Gutenberg Bible produced in the 1450s by Johannes Gutenberg. It was one of the earliest books published using the mass-produced movable metal type thus overcoming the cost and accuracy restrictions of hand-produced books.
(It should be noted that while we are critical of the papacy’s use (or misuse) of the Bible during the Dark Ages, the Vulgate was an attempt to make the Bible known in the language of the people at the time of Jerome.)
Precursors to the King James Version
The King James Translation of the Bible was set to become a watershed moment in the history of the Bible, but it is worth reviewing some of the biblical scholarship that led to it.
John Wycliffe is credited with creating the first English translation of the Bible around 1382AD. He and his associates used the Latin Vulgate Bible as their source and translated it into what is now called Middle English, the vernacular or that time. It is generally thought that Wycliffe translated most of the New Testament while some of his associates translated the Old Testament. It would be another century before printing presses would be available, so Wycliffe’s translation was only available in handwritten manuscript form. About 150 manuscripts (full or partial) still exist today.
Wycliffe is regarded as a dissident Catholic Priest. He was highly critical of the church – both its organization and doctrine, Although he died from a stroke in 1384, he was posthumously declared to be a heretic in 1415 and his body exhumed, burned, and the ashes thrown into the local river.
Erasmus(1466 – 1536)
Desiderius Erasmus was a Dutch philosopher and Christian scholar who trained as a Catholic priest. He wrote extensively in Latin and prepared new editions of the New Testament in both Latin and Greek. He was highly critical of the abuses he saw in the Catholic Church but at the same time did not identify with reformers such as Luther and Calvin. However, later Catholic historians describe Erasmus as laying the Protestant egg that Luther hatched.
From the perspective of biblical history, Erasmus took on the task of providing a new Latin translation of the New Testament and in doing so, provided a new Greek New Testament. Erasmus used several incomplete Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. His first edition was rushed into print and contained many errors. It wasn’t till the third edition that many of these were cleared. He wrote of his translation “Texum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum:” Elzevier 1633 edition in Latin. (“What you have here, is the text which is now received by all“) This is where we get the term “Textus Receptus”.
Erasmus’s translation became the basis of the German Luther Bible and also informed the Geneva, Tyndale, and ultimately, the King James versions of the Bible.
Theodore Beza (1519-1605)
Theodore Beza was a French Reformed Protestant theologian. He was a follower of Calvin and became his successor. He made a contribution to biblical scholarship in this context by publishing a Greek New Testament based on the work by Erasmus but including two New Testament Codices Codex Bezae and Codex Claramontanus, as extra sources. He also produced a new Latin New Testament based on his Greek version. These publications were used by the translators of the King James Version.
William Tyndale translated the New Testament from Greek into Middle English in the 1520’s. In doing so Tyndale earned the wrath of the Roman Catholic Catholic church and was strangled and burned at the stake. Myles Coverdale contributed to the Tyndale Version by translating the Old Testament from Hebrew and Aramaic. (The Tyndale Bible is sometimes called the Tyndale-Coverdale Bible). This was the first English translation of the Bible. Tyndale and Coverdale’s work on the Bible translation was outstanding and was the inspiration for the following English translations.
By the time Tyndale’s version was published, printing presses were available. However, only three copies of his first edition have survived.
Geneva Bible (1560)
The second Bible of significance was the Geneva Bible. Published in 1560 it was the work of Protestant English scholars who had fled from England to Switzerland during the reign of Catholic Queen Mary I. William Whittingham supervised the translation, working with other scholars including Coverdale, Goodman, Gilby, Sampson and Cole. The Geneva translation owes much to the work of both Tyndale and Erasmus.
The Geneva Bible was the first mechanically printed, mass-produced Bible made available to the public directly. It was also the first Bible to introduce numbered verses, making the Bible easy to study. To enhance its study potential, it contained copious annotations. These notes had been written by Calvinists and Puritans and were contentious to both the monarchy and the bishops of the high Church of England. However, it became the most widely popular Bible at the time and remained so for some time even after the publication of the King James Bible. It was the Bible familiar to Shakespeare and was one of the Bibles taken to America by the Plymouth Pilgrims.
The Great Bible (1539)
The Great Bible was the first “authorized” Bible in English. King Henry VIII authorized it to be read aloud in churches. It was largely the work of Martin Coverdale but included Tyndale’s New Testament. It was only produced in a large size and was often chained to a lectern in the parish churches.
The Bishop’s Bible(1568)
This was a revision of the Great Bible, known as the Bishop’s Bible, and was produced mainly as a reaction to the Geneva Bible. It omitted the contentious marginal annotations. Like the Great Bible, it was not mass-produced, as it was intended as a pulpit Bible.
King James Version (1611, revised 1769)
I have written a more extensive article on the King James Version here:
The scholars who worked on the King James Version of the Bible did not use ancient manuscripts as the basis for their translation. To a large extent they used existing, acclaimed publications as follows:
For the Old Testament, they used the Hebrew Rabbinical Bible (Masoretic text) together with the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate published by Daniel Bomberg’s (1524/25)
For the New Testament, they used Theodore Beza’s Greek and Latin version of the Greek and also used the Latin Vulgate. This publication was based on Erasmus’s work.
They took the Bishop’s Bible as their reference text and when they departed from it they used the Geneva Bible. Ultimately, they ended up with wording that was very close to the Tyndale/Coverdale translations.
The fifty-four translators were in the main academics. In the 1600’s Latin was the main language of the academic world, and they would have spoken to one another in that language. Consequently, they would have all been familiar with the Latin Vulgate.
They were also very mindful of the requirement that they reflect the teachings and ecclesiology of the Church of England. The influence of this mandate is beyond the scope of this post but here is an example: Ekklēsia is consistently translated as “church” in the KJV whereas rendering it as a “gathering”, “congregation”, or “assembly in a public place,” is more consistent with the original context. The notion of a church as a building purposely constructed for worship was essentially a 3rd – 4th century AD concept.
The King James Bible is sometimes referred to as the “Authorized Bible. ” Authorization meant that the government had authorized it to be read in churches (.ie. the Church of England) No record of its authorization exists but it was probably authorized by the Privy Council, the records of which were lost in a fire in January 1619.
When the King James Version was translated the translators accepted the published versions of Beza under the assumption that he had collected the available manuscripts and used them appropriately. This was the “Textus Receptus”. Since then many more manuscripts have been discovered and these must be evaluated on their merit for use in translation. The issue for the translators is how to arrive at the closest translation to the original meaning of the text that they are translating.
We sometimes have the picture of the process of copying the Torah which required special training to ensure the copying process was exact. Proofreading was so thorough that the characters were counted. However, that care did not extend to other biblical manuscripts. Copyists changed words and phrases and made marginal notes. You can often tell the ancestry of a particular manuscript by the propagation of “corrections”. Some copyists corrected the grammar to make the manuscript copy more consistent, or the language more eloquent.
In brief, the historical biblical manuscripts fall into 3 main categories:
This is not an exhaustive list.
Alexandrian Text Type
Typically, these have been found in Egypt where it is postulated that the dry climate has preserved them. They tend to be older than the other types which mean there are few generations of copies. They also tend to be shorter.
Byzantine Text Type
Most of the biblical manuscripts are of the Byzantine text type. While some of them have an early date, most of them are later than the Alexandrian text type manuscripts. Consequently, they are often several more copy generations away from the original autographic manuscripts.
Western Text Type
Western text type manuscripts are characterized by their loose copying with words and phrases inserted or changed when the copyist thought that it clarified the meaning.
There are two basic techniques have been developed for evaluating manuscript text and determining the probably autographic text:
Majority Text Methodology
The Majority Text method gives equal weighting to the voting on all variant manuscripts and the variant with the most votes is the one that wins.
Critical Text Methodology
The Critical Text methodology has nothing to do with criticizing the Bible per se. Rather it is a series of methods of looking at manuscripts that differ from one another to arrive at the most probable translation. There are rules for choosing disputed meaning based on the age and level of editing. It is quite complicated and as always, any decision about the weighting is going to be based on a number of assumptions.
A full explanation is beyond the scope of the post. While the methodologies have been described separately, in practice there is some scope for both methods to be used appropriately.
Up until the King James Version the Majority Text methodology was the only method but in recent years with the discovery of more manuscripts, the Critical Text Methodology has become the norm. Obviously, the new discoveries need to be compared with the older ones and evaluated.
The question remains; How much difference does it all make? Most of the differences are simple typographic/spelling/word substitution without making any significant difference to the meaning. If anything, it supports our notion that inspiration is about ideas and not words. Modern translations of the Bible based on the older Greek manuscripts often note that certain passages are not supported in some of the earlier manuscripts. (If I have time I may make a post outlining some of these in more detail.)
From my reading in this area I am surprised that for the most part we have arrived at most of our English Bible translations with a pretty good level of confidence that what we read is what the original authors intended. That includes the King James Version, along with many modern versions. The fact that there are so many historical copied documents with a high correlation of similarity is a miracle in itself and should give us confidence that God has looked after his Word.
- I am not a theologian or historian. I regard myself as a student seeking to understand. This document is not a polished academic study. It is simply a summary of the information that I have read and collated to add to our understanding and appreciation of the current lesson series.
- I have deliberately not referred to the Apocrypha which is an integral part of the history of the Bible. In this discussion it would have been a distraction. It would be useful at some stage to discuss the Apocrypha because it would contribute to our understanding of the formation of the Biblical canon. The reasons for leaving things out of the Bible are in some ways just as important as the reasons for including them.
This is a very limited bibliography. The documents and websites listed here have contributed to my understanding of the issues of transmission and translation but they are certainly not an exhaustive list.
Anon, Erasmus, Pious humanist who sparked the Reformation, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/scholarsandscientists/erasmus.html
Anon, Story Behind King James Bible, https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1601-1700/story-behind-king-james-bible-11630052.html
Anon, Text Types, https://www.scriptureanalysis.com/text-types/
Anon, William Tyndale, Translator of the first English New Testament, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/scholarsandscientists/william-tyndale.html
Ellertson, Carol F, “New Testament Manuscripts, Textual Families, and Variants” in How the New Testament Came to Be: The Thirty-fifth Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Frank F. Judd Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006), 93–108
Michael W. Holmes, “What are English Translations of the Bible Based on?”, n.p. [cited 18 May 2020]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/tools/bible-basics/what-are-english-translations-of-the-bible-based-on
Mowczko, Marg, 7 Things You May Not Know About the King James Bible, https://margmowczko.com/7-things-about-the-king-james-bible/
Wallace, Daniel B, “The History of the English Bible” series. February 2, 2009. https://bible.org/series/history-english-bible [Accessed 18 May 2020]
White, James R. (2009). The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations?. Baker Books. ISBN 978-0-7642-0605-4.